While the whole editorial staff contributed to our 2013 awards, we wanted to allow everybody the opportunity to publicly name their personal top 10 games of the year. While many did play the majority of releases in 2013, please remember that unlike our main awards, the editors are not naming the *best* games, but their personal favorites out of the selection they played.
10. Surgeon Simulator 2013
(PC, Bossa Studios)
It all began with QWOP, the little game that could, starring the little runner that really, really couldn’t. From seminal title evolved a new breed of indie comedy games – improv slapstick games, as I like to call them – where egregiously complex control methods make even the simplest tasks comically impossible. Be it scaling a wall in GIRP, doing chores in Octodad, or controlling the world’s worst serial killer in Heavy Rain, these games allow the player to make their own humour, which sets them apart from games that merely rely on clever writing. Of course, complicated as those games can get, they’re not rocket science, which is why we needed Kerbal Space Program, but even that’s not brain surgery, which brings us in a roundabout fashion to Surgeon Simulator 2013.
Surgeon simulator is a game where you control the left arm and fingers of a secretary who moonlights as an amateur surgeon on the side. Using nothing but your wits, a bone saw, psychedelic drugs, a mountain of scalpels, and a ball-peen hammer, it’s up to you to carve a path to damaged organs, extract them, and put fresh new ones roughly in their place. Anything else you take out on the way in? I wouldn’t worry about it. Who needs “lungs” anyway? Bonus levels where you perform surgery in the back of a moving ambulance or in space add some variety to the proceedings, and there’s even a special mission where you play out the surgery scene from Meet the Medic.
9. Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon
The original Luigi’s Mansion was the game that defined Christmas of 2001 for me. I got three games with my Gamecube that year; Tarzan was a rancid pile of elephant dung, and Pikmin, while great, was not quite my cup of tea. I spent hours upon plumbing the depths of that mansion, capturing spooks, hunting for treasure, and developing a deep understanding of all the ways in which Luigi is the best Mario brother.
So of course, when I heard that a sequel was being produced 12 years later, I was ecstatic. Once again, Luigi could step out of his brother’s shadow, strap on the poltergust, and wrangle him some ghosts. When the game finally arrived, it was even better than I expected. Solid vacuum-hunting gameplay, a great sense of humour, and a tightly-paced mission structure make for some of the most fun you can have with your 3DS. It’s not perfect – I miss the sense of exploration the old, single house gave me, and the bosses don’t have the same level of personality as the family from the original – but for what it is, it’s brilliant. And the multiplayer lets you play as 4 Luigis, so I lied. It is perfect.
8. Bioshock Infinite
(PS3/360/PC, Irrational Games)
Bioshock Infinite has taken a lot of flak since it launched early this year. Some would say this is because it’s a glaring example of ludonarrative dissonance, because the world and gameplay feel shallow despite their stellar presentation, or possibly because it’s racist. I’d say it’s because, when it came out, it was pretty much the only game worth discussing, and liking something a whole lot never got anyone hits. The accusations of racism are a little much to tackle in a couple of paragraphs, and I’m not going to argue that the world could stand to be a touch more complex and believable, but the folks shouting about ludonarrative dissonance have a very loose grasp of what that word means.
This is a character study of a man who’s spent his life immersed in violence. It only makes sense as a violent game. All of Columbia is essentially an outward projection of Booker’s own sins. This includes the supposedly out-of-place Vigors, which are a rather on-the-nose representation of Booker’s Alcoholism. The entire game is a head-on challenge to the conceit of meaningful choice in games, and Booker very specifically subverts the idea that a man’s entire morality can be defined by a single big moment.
I guess what I love about this game is that it has the power to spark these discussions – even if some people discussing it are just totally wrong. Whether you think of it as an examination of destiny, a critique of video games, or an unsubtle work of historical satire, there’s plenty to think and talk about.
7. Tales of Xillia
I’m a man who likes good storytelling in his rpgs, and on that front, Tales of Xillia REALLY doesn’t deliver. It uses awful writing and worse acting to essentially list off a sequence of common Tales of plot devices. There’s nary a hint of Vesperia’s wonderful character writing or Abyss’ intriguing mystery. The world is also exceedingly bland, both in terms of lore and how it’s presented visually. This game abandon’s the series fixed camera for a free-look system, and the polished, semi-pre-rendered environments of the old games are sorely missed.
Fortunately, the game doesn’t just have to get by on its narrative. For all its faults, this is hands-down the most fun the gameplay in the Tales series has ever been. The ability to swap out characters on the fly in battle adds a layer of strategic depth to the game, and the new Link System rewards you for playing around with party combinations. On top of that, each character has a special combat mechanic (for instance, Jude can flash-step behind enemies, while Milla can charge her magic) that makes them feel unique. Combat in other Tales games could get a little monotonous, but here, you will never get bored.
6. Kentucky Route Zero
(PC, Cardboard Computer)
A rickety antique truck (the sort that carries antiques, not the sort that is one itself) rolls into a lonely gas station in the middle of nowhere, Kentucky. Its driver needs to make a delivery to a street that can’t be found on any map. The only way there, it seems, is to find Route Zero, a mysterious highway that might exist somewhere on the edge of perception, or is maybe just underground. As the walls of reality break down, you’ll meet ghosts, ponder philosophical quandaries, and talk to your dog. A lot.
It’s tough to say much about Kentucky without spoiling everything. The graphics are strikingly minimalistic, the writing is brilliant and unconventional, and the narrative design is positively genius. Here most choices don’t affect the future one bit, but are crucial in determining your history. Sanity and logic ebb and flow, slipping further away the further you make it in your journey. While this can be unnerving, even spooky, you eventually learn to embrace it. This is at once the sort of ghost story you’d hear around the camp fire, and a bizarre, metaphysical journey unlike anything you’ve seen before.
5. Papers, Please
(PC, Lucas Pope)
In the height of the Cold War, a poor Eastern European nation opens its borders. The only thing standing between Arstozka and a flood of immigrants is you, the nation’s first border officer. You must make sure that everyone’s papers are in order, and that they are who they say they are. You must root out terrorists and fleeing criminals and political dissidents, and do everything in your power to keep your country safe. Not to mention keep your family alive, for heat and food are not cheap, and you get paid by the number of immigrants you process.
For a game whose sole mechanics are reading papers and using stamps, Papers, Please is incredibly deep. Just keeping track of all potential inconsistencies and checking for forgeries is tough, but you also have to deal with moral dilemmas left, right, and center. Do you let a lady with no papers through so she can be with her husband? Do you help a noble rebel cause, even though it might put you and your family at risk? You process people and answer these questions using only two stamps, red or green. It is, in a way, truly elegant. Few games can make you think so much with such simple tools.
4. The Last of Us
(PS3, Naughty Dog)
The Last of Us is an oppressively cynical examination of human nature, even by the standards of post-collapse fiction. Though it touches on many themes, everything about the game comes down to a single, fundamental question: is humanity worth saving? Many works that ask such questions are afraid to answer them, preferring that the audience draw their own conclusions. This is not that kind of game. After 16 hours of deliberation, The Last of Us weighs in with a conclusion that will shock players who haven’t read the game’s title: “probably not.”
It’s refreshing to see Naughty Dog tackle a game concept that doesn’t entirely conflict with their design philosophy. This is not a light, fun story about a likeable guy. Joel is a harsh man living in a harsh world, and the violence he enacts on his fellow survivors feels… well, not right. Not even close, really, but sufficiently justified. The connection he and Ellie build over the course of the things feels good. Not objectively good – it’s clearly codependence – but it’s dimly bright in a world of darkness. When Joel makes his final decision, you may not agree with him, but you can absolutely see why he would.
3. The Stanley Parable
(PC, Galactic Café)
“This is the story of a man named Geoffrey. Geoffrey was a game reviewer, working out of flat 229. Geoffrey’s job was to sit in front of a monitor, pressing buttons on various plastic devices as the images on screen prompted him. Then he would sit in front of a different monitor, slightly to the left of the first one, and press buttons on a different plastic device until words appeared summarizing his previous button pressing experience. This was the hard part of the job, and although others might have considered it soul-rending, Geoffrey relished ever moment of it. Geoffrey was happy.”
“And then one day something very peculiar happened; something that would forever change Geoffrey; something he would never quite forget.”
“He had been at his desk for nearly five hours, when he realized that not one single thing he’d experienced in the game before him could be described in a ‘traditional’ spoiler-free review. He couldn’t talk about the telephone, or the break room, or the adventure line, and he especially couldn’t talk about the broom closet. Geoffrey had loved the wry sense of humor and the charming, deep-voiced, handsome, devilishly intelligent narrator, but there was no way to convey it to another person without giving away the game’s best surprises.”
“His only hope was to write something funny in the style of the game’s narration and hope people wouldn’t see it as a cop-out. Failing that, maybe he could sneak it in as a game of the year summary, confident that nobody would notice because really, who reads these things anyway?”
2. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies
There are not a lot of series that get me more excited than Phoenix Wright. Since the first installment, the games have been consistently excellent on all fronts. The characters are brilliantly designed and realized, the mysteries are intricate and compelling, and the music is just fan-freakin-tastic. Dual Destinies continues all of these traditions with enthusiasm, bringing us some of the most amusing characters and intriguing whodunnits in series history and setting it all to a properly orchestrated score. With a great overarching plot full of twists and turns, this is the strongest entry in the series since the near-perfect Trials and Tribulations.
The game also finally brings Wright and Co. into the realm of 3D, and without sacrificing one bit of the visual charm and dynamism of the old game’s 2D sprites. Previous games looked great for the hardware they were on, but this fifth installment is just plain gorgeous. The characters move so smoothly and with such energy, coming to life in ways never possible with 3-frame sprites, and boy do they ever pop when you turn 3D on. With sweeping cameras and animated cutscenes, the coutroom has never felt more dynamic. I could not be more stoked for the upcoming Layton vs. Phoenix Wright.
1. Grand Theft Auto V
GTA V is a game that will define this generation. Nothing before it has been at once this immense, this polished, and this packed with content. You can spend hours just driving around Los Santos and the surrounding county, taking in the scenery, enjoying the unsubtle parody of LA, and murdering the local wildlife. You can go skydiving, or hunting, or swimming, or you can kidnap tourists and take them to a mountain cult compound. There is so much to do, and so much of it feels mechanically satisfying. The driving physics are superb, and the shooting, while a little on the sticky side, feels responsive and weighty. The game also showcases some amazing technology, with some of the best water and fire simulation I’ve ever seen.
The core design is also nothing short of brilliant. Having three playable characters is a brilliant move that allows for some great combat dynamics in-mission, and opens up a nice, semi-random fast travel option when you’re free roaming. Of course, each character does his own thing during down time, so when you switch, you might find them smoking weed at home, or drinking coffee, or tying a man to a dock and waiting for the tide to rise. In case you couldn’t tell, Trevor is my favourite. Although I must say that Franklin’s slowdown power while driving is one of the most satisfying game mechanics I’ve ever experienced.
Not content with just being big and fun, GTAV also tells a great, hilarious story punctuated by some real wow moments. Breaking from the GTA boiler-plate story of working your way up under a series of increasingly powerful mob bosses, GTA V is structured around a series of massive heists. A lot of the side missions involve preparing for these jobs, when your characters aren’t dealing with their own personal relationships and hangups. Of course, the heists make for some great set-pieces, but even outside of them you’ll find yourself doing things like chasing a crashing plane across the dessert on a motorcycle, or hopping on a locomotive for a good old-fashioned train robbery. GTA V is an immensely ambitious game, and it lives up to those ambitions 100%.